The foundations of a house and a marriage are both under siege in this short story by Caryl Lewis.
She was taking the wet clothes out of the twin tub when she spotted the tile. She had rolled her sleeves up and lifted the damp clothes into the basket, ready to hang them on the line. She had kept the water from the first wash for the second load, and it was now clouded with muck and bits of fluff and grass seeds. She listened to the pumping of the machine, like a heartbeat driving out the dirt along with the water into the sink.
The machine had been a godsend, and Dai had been happy for her to have it. There had been no electricity in the house until the beginning of the sixties, and soaking Wiliam’s nappies in buckets had been a real chore. Eirwen had had to walk to the phone box at the top of the lane to call the shop and order it. She had been saving a little money here and there and the machine was bought cash in hand. She had heard that Rosemary at Tŷ Po’th and some others had to pay week by week, but Eirwen’s cheeks flushed at the thought of such a thing.
She turned and happened to look along the red and black tiled floor through the narrow kitchen, past the dining table and toward the grandfather clock that stood somber at the far end of the small room by the back door. Yes, there was a shadow there. She stopped where she stood, the wet clothes in her arms dampening her apron. It was her habit to scrub the floor every Saturday evening when Dai would walk over to the Red Lion. Without him under her feet, she could lift the chairs onto the table and run a basin of hot, soapy water and scrub it all clean. But today, although the tiles shone, and a pathway of light stretched over to her feet, there was a shadow at the edge of one tile.
She put the clothes down in the basket and walked toward the shadow. She stopped and looked down at the tile. Nothing. She pressed down on it with the sole of her foot. She moved her foot from one side of the tile to the other. Yes, it was uneven. She bent over and noticed how red the skin of her arms was from the washing. In fact, she had noticed of late that the skin on her hands was aging from being constantly in water in the milking parlor and the house. Rosemary next door rubbed hers with some kind of cold cream every night but Eirwen had laughed at her for being so silly. She felt the tile with her fingers. Yes, one side was coming up. She sat back on her knees and felt them pull.
As she put the clothes out on the line that hung between the old apple tree and the pear tree behind the house, she could think of nothing but the tile. She folded the clothes over the line, and when the basket was empty, she turned back to look at the house. As a child, she had been in the habit of coming here to see Dai. They had walked every step of the way to school together and later, at fourteen, worked on the same farm at Llain—she in the house and he in the fields. As one of eleven children, she was expected to marry him so that there would be one mouth fewer to feed at home. Her mother, being busy with the smaller children, was not much interested in Wiliam when he was born, and Eirwen felt that her visits brought her mother more trouble than pleasure.
She had been fortunate in both Dai and the house, and although he spent a good deal of time in the village, and she had usually finished milking and would be feeding the calves by the time he arrived home, he was great company for her. Eirwen looked at the small windows, which kept out the light and the heat, and noticed the young ash tree that had reached over to the hedge of the old house. It had caught her eye years before, a stubborn, alien sapling in the old garden. She lifted the basket and walked over to it. The trunk was straight and sturdy and the leaves fondled the roof at the back of the house. There was moss growing on the old slates here and there, and Eirwen had told Dai countless times that they needed cleaning.
Eirwen’s gaze followed the tree down to its base, and, to her amazement, she saw its gray roots pushing in underneath the house. She dropped the basket and felt panic rise in her breast. Then, without picking up the basket, she ran back inside. She looked again at the tile. A root had pushed through the old earthen floor and was determinedly lifting up the tile, damaging the surface. Eirwen heard the old clock strike three. Wiliam would soon be home from school, and it would be time to go and fetch the cows for milking, but she was unable to take her eyes off the dark shadow on the floor.
When Dai came home that evening, she told him about the tree as he cleaned out his pipe with his pocket knife. The tree would have to be chopped down, Eirwen suggested, but Dai flared up at her. He had been all day in the village seeing Jams about this and that. He wanted peace and quiet, not a whole lot of fussing about some bloody tree. He went and sat down in the sitting room by the fire to smoke his pipe.
Eirwen put Wiliam quietly to bed before going back to sit at the little table and stare again at the tile.
Over the years, the ash had grown, darkening the house still more. Its leaves filled the gutters, causing the dirty water to drip down over the whitewash on the back wall. Eirwen would have to fetch a ladder from the shed and try and clear them before tying a handkerchief round her head and whitewashing the old wall again. The wisps of hair around her forehead would be white by the time she had finished, and her shoulders would ache, but she would stand firm between the tree and the house. The tile was by now almost completely pushed out of place.
Sometimes, in the winter, when her cheeks burned from being pinched by the wind, Eirwen would lie in bed listening to the comforting sound of Dai’s breathing. But her dreams would be filled with the ash tree’s leaves, like hands, like dark talons destroying the house. The roots would seethe underground, strong and muscular, ready to burst through the floor and shatter the orderly red and black pattern of the chessboard of their lives.
Like his father, Wiliam did not have farming in his blood. He took no great interest and by the time he moved to town, the ash had darkened the back of the house altogether. Wiliam had a son himself, and although Eirwen had plenty of time to look after him, his wife worked too, Wiliam explained carefully, and it was more convenient for his mother-in-law to take care of the little one.
Now, the twin tub sat in the milking parlor, covered with straw. Because she had been so careful with it, the old machine had lasted twenty years, but, as with the empty milking parlor, things had moved on. Eirwen sat at the small table nursing a cup of tea. The oilcloth had been worn to a blurry white under her arms and Dai’s after the years they had spent sitting opposite each other. She heard the new washing machine humming quietly behind her in the old, narrow kitchen. She had laundered the collar of his white shirt clean and pressed the tongue of his black tie under the iron till it was shining and smooth. Dai would soon be home. The funeral was at one o’clock. She got up and went over to the stove to take a look at the meat. It was roasting noisily in the enamel tin. She closed the door and began to set the table. She went to the cupboard before turning and walking to the sitting room. She went to the dresser and opened the glass door. It had been polished clean. There, the best dishes shone—the ones the couple had received on their wedding day. She gathered them carefully and clutched them to her breast, carrying them to the table. She went to the drawer and took out a white cloth that had been starched into a small square and opened it into a streak of white along the table. The vegetables were boiling.
The service would go on till two and then he would have to go to the graveside. Then there would be the tea, of course. It was normally Rosemary who did the tea in the chapel, together with Marion from Llety Hen. Eirwen proceeded to set out knives and forks before lifting the meat onto a plate and pressing it in foil to make the gravy. Dai might have had too much tea to eat a meal like this, but he was very fond of a roast dinner.
At half past six he came home. He sat at the table with the clock behind him. The smell of dinner filled the house. He took off his tie and Eirwen asked him to go and change in case he made a mess of his best suit. He looked up at her. He rose to his feet and moved, before kicking the tile loose with one of his polished shoes. The two of them watched as it skimmed across the surface of the other tiles and ran square into the skirting board on the far side. Eirwen looked at him, afraid. There lay the root, naked and wild in the darkness of the earth. Dai lifted his head and looked at her.
“She’s gone,” he said.
Eirwen knew that the woman her husband had been having an affair with for over thirty years lay in the cemetery. Eirwen nodded at him. His skin was somehow paler against the black of his suit. Eirwen rubbed her tired arms with her hands and looked at him.
“It’s time to cut that tree down,” she said at last. He nodded, his face somewhat softened with age. “It won’t take long for the root to die back.”
The two of them listened for a long time to the ticking of the old clock before Eirwen turned to bring the supper to the table.
© Caryl Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.